Not a Voluntourist

After reading many articles in the British press recently, I would like to take this opportunity to explain how my year abroad pre-university was not voluntourism. Although nobody has challenged me about the validity or worthiness of my gap year in Chile, I feel that my silence about the subject often leaves people curious as to what I did.

Selling Glowsticks
Selling glowsticks to teenagers and nightclub goers


After an assembly in year 12, I enrolled on a selection course with Project Trust, an educational charity based in the UK. After being accepted onto their program, I had the ginormous [dzai-norr-mus] < not a word but it’s a combination of giant and enormous > task of fundraising £4850 for the charity. Project Trust (henchforth PT) actively encourages volunteers to fundraise money in innovative and fun ways. I never stood in the city centre shaking a tin at passers-by, instead I became a leader of my own mini enterprise as it were. I approached businesses for sponsorship and raffle prizes, networked within my local community to rally support and took advantage of schemes such as recycling mobile phones and CDs to raise the money needed to fund my year out. I also did a 10km sponsored swim, sold glowsticks in clubs, held bake sales and went to car boot sales. PT has a clear and transparent system in terms of money, and with documents such as their annual reports it was clear that the money I raised was being spent on the individual volunteers in terms of flights, insurance, food, accommodation etc. If you would like to read more information, and see Project Trust’s stance on voluntourism, please follow this link .

Learning the names of animals
Learning the names of animals

English Teaching in Colegio Anglicano William Wilson In Chile I was volunteering in a primary/middle school in a small village. Rachel and I taught English to the younger ages ourselves, we created our own resources and made our own lesson plans. We taught these classes once a week, and both put lots of effort into making fun activities for the children to do to improve their English. We made worksheets, flashcards and prepared songs. Planning lessons from scratch for a class of thirty 7 year olds requires a lot of work, and a lot of patience was needed in the classroom. These timetabled classes were taught by us each week for the whole school year, but we also were sometimes told at the last minute that a teacher was ill, so we would have to carry on teaching English for the next hour too. I doubt a voluntourist teacher would be ‘dropped in it’ like this at the last minute, left having to think on their feet for more activities and games for the students.

Eldest class in the school
Eldest class in the school

In the older classes (year 5 onwards) we were language assistants, helping the English teacher with lessons from the Chilean national curriculum. These were more frustrating classes for us, I personally felt that often I was more of a distraction to the pupils than a help, as they wanted to ask me questions about England rather than pay attention and learn grammar structures. We approached the headteacher with an idea to take out small groups of students for 5 minutes each lesson to work on their pronunciation. This proved popular, and despite not being to take out each student each time, we managed to help students on a more personal level and we saw progress over the weeks we did this for. The reason we felt it was necessary to ask the school to change their ways, was because we were in the school to help students with their English, and for a while, we were not actively helping any of the elder pupils by being in the classroom. The fact that we had to push and fight for our idea to become a reality, to me, shows that we were not tourists, just passing by the school to take pictures with the children. As the project was long term (one year) both Rachel and I had plenty of time to be able to make some changes and have an impact on some people.

Secondary Project

We also set up a secondary project, teaching conversational English to adults in the local community each Monday night. I really enjoyed these classes, as we only spoke in English to the adult learners and instead of us giving them answers in Spanish, they were able to help each other to understand. Our classes were different each week and in the 10 week course we covereda wide range of topics such as general introductions, phone numbers, introducing family members, spelling and the alphabet, asking for directions, asking and answering questions. PT encourages each volunteer, or pair to set up a secondary project in their time overseas, complimentary to the voluntary English teaching we were doing. I felt a great sense of achievement with the adult English classes in the community, as we acted on our own initiative to provide a useful service for the wider community. To set it up, formal emails were sent, we had various meetings with different members of the local council and were even personally greeted and thanked by the Mayoress.

Not all smiles

Although my year abroad was fantastic, I learnt a lot about myself, the world, different ways of living etc, it was not all smiles. Living in a small community for a long amount of time allows you to see and learn all about it. I was able to celebrate with the Cholcholinos during their (very many!) festivals and days of celebration, but also I witnessed the passing of some members of the community and attended funerals. I was a part of the grieving process and although it was eye opening seeing how different cultures face death, it was also very sad. I was told over and over again by the Cholcholinos that the age-old saying is true,

Pueblo chico, infierno grande (Small village, large Hell)

"I was born between thistles and the foamy river. They called me Trol Trol for being beautiful land"
“I was born between thistles and the foamy river. They called me Trol Trol for being beautiful land”

I understood this after a few months in the village. It seemed that everybody talked about the gringuitas (little foreign girls) over their onces (elevenses). If I told one person something, the next day many more people would have found out. It wasn’t out of malice that they talked about where we were, who we were friends with or what we were doing this weekend. But it soon became frustrating for me especially.


Tango dancers
Tango dancers

Of course, during the weekends and my holidays I was a tourist, taking time to visit many cities, sights and museums across South America. Travelling in a group of eight girls was difficult, especially for me as I was the designated map reader, translator, currency converter and English – Spanish dictionary. But I had an amazing time visiting more of Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

To conclude, the main reasons I believe my gap year with Project Trust was not voluntourism are:

  • Fundraising by myself allowed me to take control of my year abroad before I went, and it wasn’t a case of my parents paying for my time overseas. I worked extremely hard to fundraise, at a time when I was also studying for my A-levels and choosing universities
  • Project Trust is a registered educational charity with over 40 years of experience; they carefully vet each project to ensure that no work is taken from members of the local community, so my volunteering was an extra help to the school
  • I was based in a long term project for one year, enabling me to see and be involved in all aspects of community life, good and bad
  • I didn’t do ‘half a job’, I was involved in a whole academic year of school activities
  • I made strong, real friendships with the people I met, and keep in contact with many of the teachers and students from the school.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the people who supported me in my fundraising, including my family members, friends, neighbours and members of my local community. I was supported by Barclays bank, The Lord Mayor’s [of Coventry] Charity, Caludon Castle Sports Centre, Zenith Contractors, Nandos, The Litten Tree, Pinley RFC and Kasbah.


6 thoughts on “Not a Voluntourist

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